US real es­tate agents are tak­ing to the skies to show off lux­ury listings


Air­sick­ness bags, avi­a­tion head­sets and mo­tion sick­ness cures are the new essen­tials for a se­lect group of US real es­tate agents who take top clients up in he­li­copters to show multi-mil­lion-dol­lar listings. “We don’t do it for just any­one — they have to be very well-qual­i­fied,” says Gwen Banta, a Los An­ge­les­based lux­ury bro­ker who has flown her clients over $US11 mil­lion ($14m) and $US16m homes in Lake Ar­row­head and Mam­moth Lakes, Cal­i­for­nia. “You come in over the lake and get that view, and they’re sold on the area be­fore they ever touch ground.”

In cities such as Mi­ami, Los An­ge­les and Chicago, fly­ing real es­tate agents score points with high-value clients by glid­ing over snarled traf­fic, swoop­ing low over gated manses, and scop­ing out neigh­bour­hoods in a mat­ter of min­utes. Ranch bro­kers in the Rocky Moun­tains and Texas can cover thou­sands of hectares in an af­ter­noon while de­liv­er­ing views of rivers, canyons and the oc­ca­sional griz­zly bear.

“When we look at prop­erty any­where, in cen­tral Florida or Idaho or Wy­oming, we al­ways use the he­li­copter be­cause it gives you such a bird’s-eye view,” says Bernie Lit­tle, a com­mer­cial cat­tle owner who has a home in Florida and a ranch in Jack­son, Wy­oming.

That view comes at a cost: his prices start at $US650 an hour for a three-pas­sen­ger Robin­son R44 he­li­copter and pi­lot. Sight­see­ing and catered lunches are of­ten in­cluded. The bro­ker usu­ally foots the bill.

“To pro­vide some­thing that a re­ally wealthy per­son would ap­pre­ci­ate is not an easy thing to do,” says Chris Feurer, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Jame­son Sotheby’s In­ter­na­tional Realty in Chicago, which be­gan of­fer­ing he­li­copter view­ings of prop­er­ties with a min­i­mum $1.5m pur­chase price last year.

Feurer has bud­geted $US100,000 for he­li­copters this year. Jame­son bro­kers has used them to show lux­ury con­do­mini­ums and eques­trian estates — and as a perk for top clients.

At­tor­ney Jan­ice An­der­son sold her $US1.6m condo in the city’s South Loop and bought a new one on Lake Michi­gan for just un­der $US900,000 with bro­ker Lau- ren Schuh. As a thank you, Schuh took An­der­son and her daugh­ter for a vic­tory lap over the city.

Pi­lots and es­tate agents strate­gise in ad­vance to plan aerial house tours. The pi­lot col­lects the co-or­di­nates of the homes and neigh­bour­hoods the agent wants to show and uses them to plan the flight. The agent uses Google map­ping soft­ware on an iPad to iden­tify what prop­er­ties will look like from 150m up. If a home that isn’t listed catches the client’s eye, the agent can pin­point the lo­ca­tion for fu­ture ref­er­ence, while the pi­lot zooms in for a close-up.

“We can go re­ally, re­ally close — you can lit­er­ally see peo­ple lying out on their decks,” says Lind­say Gal­braith, a Sotheby’s In­ter­na­tional Realty agent based in

West Hol­ly­wood. Not all own­ers, or their neigh­bours, are ready for their close-up. “The sellers do not en­joy it when they’re home and there’s a he­li­copter fly­ing low at close range,” says Gal­braith.

Los An­ge­les’s lux­ury mar­ket is par­tic­u­larly suited for air­borne house hunt­ing, with its jammed free­ways, and kilo­me­tres of hedgerows and high gates that shield high-end prop­er­ties from view.

From the sky, it’s easy to see which Mal­ibu listings have a cov­eted dry beach or one that dis­ap­pears at high tide. A-list clients can check whether a gated es­tate is truly pa­parazzi-proof.

“No 1 rule: What a he­li­copter can see from up here is what some­one can see from a house on the hill­top with a big-an­gle lens,” says Ben Salem, an LA bro­ker.

Ea­ger to snag lu­cra­tive com­mis­sions in­stead of hourly fees, some com­mer­cial pi­lots have their own real es­tate li­cences. Marc Hennes, a pi­lot and es­tate agent based in Fort Laud­erdale, be­gins by ask­ing clients if they’d like to view lux­ury prop­er­ties with the chop­per doors on or off.

“We would come to al­most a com­plete stop in midair — say you’re on the edge of a cliff, look­ing down,” says Phil Ap­ple­ton, a con­sul­tant in the off­shore oil and gas in­dus­try, who bought a $US1.1m beach­front condo in Fort Laud­erdale af­ter hover­ing in front of it — doors off — with Hennes.

Hennes, who some­times brings a sec­ond pi­lot along, “be­cause I can’t talk and point out prop­er­ties while driv­ing”, re­cently toured the site of a new lux­ury con­do­minium with clients. “They couldn’t imag­ine what the views were like, so we flew right around the 12th storey,” he says.

Elena Ber­man, an artist, listed her $US3.2m lake­side home in Cal­i­for­nia’s San Fer­nando Val­ley with John Mowatt, a pi­lot, flight in­struc­tor and real es­tate agent, af­ter he took her for a demo view­ing in a Siko­rsky S-76.

She en­joyed the flight but not the de­scent: “I had five min­utes of nau­seous time — you can­not look down so much.”

Mowatt, who co-founded Heli-Real­tors in LA, stocks the five he­li­copters he uses with air­sick­ness wrist­bands and barf bags. Savvy bro­kers sug­gest travel sick­ness pills be­fore board­ing.

View­ings are oc­ca­sion­ally de­layed by bad weather or me­chan­i­cal prob­lems. One pi­lot had to make an emer­gency land­ing, turn­ing a 45-minute view­ing into a four-hour pit stop. “The clients were a lit­tle frus­trated,” Heli-Real­tors co-founder and bro­ker Brett Lieber­man says. But more of­ten, agents and pi­lots say, the he­li­copter is a great bond­ing tool.

“A lot of th­ese folks are pretty stand-off­ish when they first meet us. As soon as you get them in the air and they see the beauty … they re­ally lighten up,” says Mark Tay­lor, chief pi­lot and owner of Mon­tana-based Rocky Moun­tain Ro­tors, who tours $US40m ranches with bro­kers such as Tim Mur­phy of Hall and Hall.

Mur­phy’s prospec­tive buy­ers pay the air­craft fees, which start at $US1400 an hour for a tur­bine he­li­copter. A client with an en­tourage — or a life in­surance pol­icy that pro­hibits sin­gle-en­gine he­li­copter flights — may re­quire the twin-en­gine Bell 429 with seven pas­sen­ger seats, for $4650 an hour.

An av­er­age tour can last five hours; two-day trips to view mul­ti­ple ranches, with an overnight stay at a pic­turesque cabin, are not un­com­mon.

Tay­lor, who re­lies on re­mote we­b­cams through­out Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park to mon­i­tor flight con­di­tions for his high-alti­tude tours, ups the wow fac­tor by seek­ing out alpine wa­ter­falls, lofty peaks and pho­to­genic wildlife. While fly­ing with Mur­phy and clients from Lon­don, Tay­lor spot­ted a griz­zly bear and her cubs in a dis­tant meadow. He flew over and did a low fig­ureeight around the bears, who rose up on cue.

“We al­ways find cool stuff that just blows the mind of th­ese peo­ple who come from the city,” Mur­phy says.

Kevin Meier, an agent with duPerier Land Man, flies his clients over hunt­ing and fish­ing ranches across Texas, some­times cov­er­ing 800km in one day. A for­mer wildlife bi­ol­o­gist, Meier uses his he­li­copter tours to spot­light a recre­ational ranch’s key sell­ing points: rivers and creeks — es­sen­tial for fly-fish­ing — or a well-antlered deer herd. Lunch is pro­vided, on the fly.

“The client said, ‘Hey, let’s go and grab some lunch — I see some Dairy Queen’,” Meier re­calls.

The pi­lot landed in the park­ing lot.

Heli-Real­tors’ John Mowatt and client Elena Ber­man, above; a view of Mal­ibu from a real es­tate agent’s chop­per, right

Mon­tana pi­lot Mark Tay­lor, left, with lo­cal real es­tate agent Tim Mur­phy

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